Embracing a new work-life balance during lockdown

Dr Carol Sheppard and her family
Dr Carol Sheppard and her family

Dr Carol Sheppard explains how lockdown has reinvigorated her research by providing a much-needed opportunity for planning and reflection.

In 2015 my husband and I were some of the first people in the country to take shared parental leave, an arrangement we both highly advocate. I had a baby (girl), published a first author paper and learnt to drive, all in the space of a year. It was a challenging year with a steep learning curve but I was immensely proud of all of my achievements. No-one patted me on the back more than myself!

Since then I have moved university, changed field and had another baby (a boy). We have the same arrangement of shared parental leave but this time it was different. I did not have the same knowledge base in this field, nor the network of collaborators and most importantly I did not have a manuscript in preparation. Instead, in my first few months of maternity leave when I was crippled by sleep deprivation and learning to survive with ‘baby brain’ (a phenomenon I had previously dismissed) several papers were published that made significant advances in my area. When I returned to part-time work I was keen to get back into the lab and prove my worth. So amongst all the lactating I quickly devised a new plan and set of experiments. Nothing worked.

I persevered as every good post-doc does but I was left feeling dejected, lost and tired, so so tired. Then lockdown happened and it’s been wonderful! For our family of four, we have cherished this unique time together and the much-needed extra hour in bed. We have remained on shared parental leave, with my husband and I working four hours each per day whilst the other feeds the children seemingly endless snacks and navigates the assault course of Lego. It’s been hectic and noisy and messy (do crumbs breed?) but it works. We have been able to teach our four-year-old to ride her bike without stabilisers, write full words, understand the concept of evolution and the wonders of the naked mole-rat. Meanwhile our (now) 11 month old has cut his first teeth, likes to clap his podgy hands without actually making any sound and is finally crawling and standing. When I am not playing and breastfeeding (delighted the pump has been temporarily retired) I am working. As a lab-based scientist, I didn’t ever really consider working from home for more than a few half-hearted hours in the evening. During these last few months, I have had the opportunity to think, read, think some more and plan. I do like a good plan. It has been an immensely valuable time.

Now, from the scraps of my lab notebook I have pieced together a manuscript in preparation (albeit with a lot of lab work left to do). I needed this time and would not hesitate to take a break from the bench again. I have now happily returned to the lab, reinvigorated and excited to be putting my revered plan into action. I am also very much appreciating the ability to hold an uninterrupted conversation. What’s more, we now know when the school holidays roll around we will not simply ‘manage’ childcare, we will relish the time with our young family and the opportunity to philosophise from home.

Dr Carol Sheppard is a Research Associate in the Barclay Lab.


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